|The Fat Duck Restaurant parting gift: |
the menu sealed in a velvet embossed envelope and wax stamped.
So...what of these hallowed documents? One thing is for certain, most people barely read them. True and painful fact. People are there to socialize and eat, to soak up ambience and to be satiated. Not, unfortunately...to scrutinize the menu. But good chefs don’t write or cook for most people. They cook for themselves first, the discerning customers second and hopefully the rest will fall into line. There are a myriad of tripwires that one needs to be aware of when writing a menu and I speak from no plateau of perfection but a wizened old dog learned from mistakes.
Less is more
The smaller the menu, the more attention to detail, the fresher the ingredients. This is generally a rule of thumb. The trick is to still offer a good selection that will cater to most tastes. If someone doesn’t like being offered a realistic amount of options per course for the size of the restaurant...send ‘em down the Chinese takeway where they can order a number 89. Chef Achatz of Alinea in Chicago foregoes the menu entirely...you only get it when you’ve finished the meal.
Keeping it fresh
Repetition is anathema to the creative mind. A daily or weekly dated menu is not always proof that the chef is constantly creating something wonderfully new, but it is a good start. Your menu should, of course, truly reflect the changes in local seasons. Bored chefs churning out the same old same old lack passion and care, busy chefs that are challenged by regular menu changes are always on that knife edge of chasing a carrot of perfection.
Wording to avoid;
‘On a bed of’
‘With a hint of’
The list goes on and on. Tack-o-rama. When I see this tripe it’s the equivalent to seeing a hair salon called ‘Cut n’ Loose’ or the obligatory black board outside a bar stating...’Good Food Served Here’. You can’t teach class, but you sure can sense it’s absence.
It is a struggle. The grail is to create a document of substance if not beauty that does not intimidate. I don’t really believe that can be done on the scale that I would personally enjoy, so compromises must be made to set the average diner in your chosen locale at ease. You have to pay heed to your surround.
Spelling, grammar, fonts, paper quality...all these things matter. Even those customers that don’t pay much attention will have a subconscious current of...’all is how it should be’. Think of the style of your establishment and follow suit with your menu. A leather and silk ribbon bound tome for a gastro pub would be as out of place as a laminated A3 sheet at The Ritz.
As a head chef, unless you are at the perceived top of your game, chances are you won’t have enough skilled staff to execute exactly what could be the pinnacle of what you yourself could create. Accept this. Your dishes can only be as good as what the weakest member of your team can be trained to replicate on a busy night. The larger the restaurant, the less detailed and fussy the food. There are few things worse than good ideas executed badly due to a lack of time or skill.
The best, busiest, most lauded and often awarded restaurants have the luxury of doing exactly what they want. They build up a following by forging their own niche. People go there for a new experience. If you aren’t in this elite game, a balance must be struck between what the customer wants and what will satisfy your creative drive.
I'm getting up there in this game, been at it a long time. Bit bored frankly. With my new menu I've decided to break a few of my hard set rules, rattle the cage as it were...play with my food. A bit more contrived, more elements, heavy on the clever, light on the rustic. Still stay true to my ethos, but give the diner a bit more of a show. Who knows...I may even enjoy the journey.
New menu tasters...
‘Beefsteak Tomato Tartare’
This is one of the most clever dishes I’ve ever created. By created I mean stolen from someone and made it better. A fresh, colourful and flavourful vegetarian dish that mirrors the most classic of meat dishes. No, that's not a yolk in the centre...
Pigeon is my favourite of the game birds. Pared with a little sweetness, richness and texture...a winning dish.
'Hock Terrine, Ham Mousse Leek Cannelloni & Smoked Bacon Sausage Olive'
This dish was inspired by the Kandinsky print hanging in my bedroom and out of a strong desire to challenge my own repertoire. An old dog playing new tricks.
An edited version of this article will appear in the October issue of Devon Life Magazine.